Daniel MacIvor’s Never Swim Alone is an ironic parody of gender as well as a mildly unsettling piece of theatre. Directed by Katey Wattam, Never Swim Alone is not the kind of play an outsider would come to expect from McGill’s Player’s Theatre. Everything about it is minimal in terms of set design, costume design, and props, and yet it remains impactful long after the show is over.
The plot appears simple enough: Two men, Frank and Bill, played by Thomas Gould and Guillaume Doussin, enter a room and engage in a battle of one-upmanship under the watchful gaze of the dainty Referee, portrayed by Eléonore Von Friken. Through 13 rounds of attempting to outshine one another, the audience catches a glimpse into the tragic lives of the play’s three characters who hide behind their ironic and caricatured façades.
Wattam took artistic liberties with staging and blocking, which were a welcome departure from conventional arrangements. When interacting, whether in a verbal or a physical altercation, Frank and Bill were often positioned in ways that created distance between them. From a conversation held back-to-back to a chokehold where both characters were on opposite ends of the stage, creative uses of space amplified the actors’ actions and commanded the room’s attention.
The convincing and powerful performances of Gould, Doussin, and Von Friken were made even more impactful when placed against the minimal backdrop of a simple black curtain. Without the conventional addition of an elaborate set, the characters were really all that one could focus on. The actors’ performances were the greatest strength of the production, while the minimalism of the set and props played to this strength.
When I spoke to her after the show, Wattam mentioned that she chose to direct a Daniel MacIvor piece because of the “philosophical meaning he embeds in accessible dialogue, while theatre can be a generally inaccessible medium.” And she has a point—theatre is a transient form of art where one cannot understand it at their own pace, like with a book or film, and many nuances risk being lost to the viewers during the performance. For an outsider who is not especially familiar with theatre, or even the arts in general, it can seem daunting to attend a performance rife with references and inspiration from classic works. Never Swim Alone was something else entirely. Although MacIvor’s text draws on scholar Judith Butler’s treatise on gender, it is not necessary to be familiar with these allusions to understand the message—that the characters are damaged by the superficial, male-centric world they inhabit.
Despite its eccentric guise, the play is a tragic one. Frank and Bill’s competitive jests mask repressed dissatisfaction with their mundane, materialistic, and uneventful lives. By judging their competition, the Referee attempts to assert her own agency in the masculine world of the play, yet the men’s focus on outshining one another eventually leaves her by the wayside. It becomes abundantly clear that the gender roles the characters are trying to live up to are damaging their lives in irrevocable ways.
What was most enjoyable about the production was that it managed to convey significant social commentary in a way that wasn’t lost to the audience. As an art form that demands undivided attention, theatre can be more of a challenge to dissect right in the moment. While the play’s philosophical inspiration and meaning were extremely palpable, MacIvor doesn’t spell it out for viewers in a way that prevents them from thinking and drawing their own conclusions. In fact, provoking thoughtful reactions is probably what this play does best—as it is entirely possible that others would draw different conclusions than those drawn here. The play achieves something remarkable in being accessible, insightful, and shocking while maintaining charm and endearing absurdity throughout.